I’ll be honest here: I haven’t pushed a thumb-sized wad of cotton wool up my vagina since Shakira’s "Hips Don’t Lie" was number one. It’s not that I’m not thrilled to my very core at the idea of shelling out a fiver every month for the pure pleasure of not turning my gusset into the outflow of an abattoir. And it isn’t that my heart doesn’t sing at the opportunity to bury the odd metric tonne of bloodied cotton in landfill or see it flush out into the sea to stopper the blowhole of a passing dolphin. And it’s not that I don’t think the tampon tax isn’t a charming and entirely fair way to earn yet more money from women’s bodies. It’s just… I don’t know. Tampons, like hair mascara, trainer socks and Walkman radios feel like something I left behind a while ago. For comfort, cost, environmental impact and handiness when travelling I’ve been #teammooncup for years now. And had little-to-no intention of ever going back. But then I moved to Berlin for the summer. Germany; the home of rye bread, bratwurst, bumbags and, you’ve guessed it, the probiotic tampon. And I wondered – could this be the thing that pulls me back in? Is this vaguely yoghurt-sounding concoction what my genital life’s been missing? Am I missing out? After all, my modern combination of soap, semen, sweat and bicycle saddles could well have stripped some of the natural flora and fauna from my vag. Like most women, I get mild bouts of thrush from time to time and, while it’s easy to treat, perhaps there’s more of a grassroots solution. And so, dear reader, I headed down to my nearest Apotheke to give these probiotic little wonders a whirl.
Things seemed, initially, destined for success. The most common brand of probiotic tampon here in Germany is called Ellen, which is basically my name backwards. The tin was also like something from a cosmonaut survival kit – all shiny silver capsule and stay-fresh foil. At six euros for 12 they weren’t cheap, of course. But then, perhaps you get what you pay for. After all, the makers of Ellen claim that "the targeted delivery of certain probiotic lactic acid bacteria that maintain the balance in the natural vaginal flora, can prevent infections." Apparently, the healthy pH balance of the vaginal mucosa should be between 3.8 and 4.5. I’ve never yet put a dipstick up my hole but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if things have got out of whack up there. Also, according to the Ellen website, in a Swedish survey of 2,900 women who used ELLEN ® during their period, 87% were convinced that ELLEN ® has supported the vaginal flora. How this is measured isn't too clear; I like to imagine some sort of Springwatch-style questionnaire. But the same study also found that, after using 16 tampons, 69% reported improvement of their symptoms; less itching, less smell, fewer cases of vaginosis altogether.
The way they work isn’t terribly complicated: you put the tampon where tampons go and, once it reaches body temperature, the bacterial carrier liquifies and is released into your vagina. You don’t need to move a muscle. As if by magic, just three days after investing in my new silver bullet of probiotic tampons, my period arrived to put things to the test. Opening the packet I was surprised to find that probiotic tampons look a lot like regular applicator-free tampons. I don’t know why, but I was expecting something more like a cross between a yoghurt-coated brazil nut and a test tube. However, these were nothing more than cotton on a string.
I’ve never found tampons particularly uncomfortable but I was aware, for the first day at least, that I was wearing one. And, once things got properly underway, I spent much of my daily 10km run worrying that I might max out my new accessory and start bleeding across my sports shorts. But the most annoying thing, of course, is remembering to carry them in the first place. As a mooncup user, I’m completely out of practice at having to pack a box of tampons every time I leave the house. Usually, all I have to remember is to empty it when I go to the loo. And so, on day three, I found myself turn tail at my local U-bahn train station because I realised with a sinking heart that I’d forgotten to transfer the capsule box of Ellens from one handbag to another. Still, I stuck with them for the full five days. As for the probiotic benefits, I’d struggle to say I really noticed any tangible difference with old Ellen. I didn’t get thrush, sure. But I didn’t actually notice things down under turning into a thriving rainforest of lactobacilli and supersonic vaginal mucosa either. Sex didn’t feel particularly better and judging by all firsthand sensory measures, things ticked along pretty much as per. Of course, in truth, tampons are a license to print money. As Nora Ephron wrote in Heartburn, if you want to get rich, invest in something that people buy once and throw away. Tampons are expensive, disposable and provide some solution to the nigh-on essential need to stop blood dribbling down your thighs. Probiotic tampons may do less harm to the natural bacterial balance of your vagina than regular tampons, but isn’t that a little like saying low carb doughnuts are slightly more healthy than Krispy Kremes? I still find it annoying that we have to pay for them and have them rattling around the bottom of our handbags, and even for a world weary woman like myself, they’re not the most pleasant thing to stick where the sun don’t shine. So thanks Ellen, it’s been fun. I’m glad we had a chance to hang out. And I’m pleased that you care. But I just don’t think this will work long term. Sorry.